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With virtually no Republican support for the health care reform bill, some Democrats believe they will have to go it alone.
But Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, isn't worried about the political repercussions.
When asked about the risks of abandoning efforts for a bipartisan bill, Dean had this to say:
"All the really great programs in American history, Social Security, was done without Republicans. Medicare was done without Republican support until the last vote where they realized they had to get on board," Dean said on the Aug. 25, 2009, episode of The Rachel Maddow Show . "So a lot of the things that have been done that have helped seniors in particular have been done without Republican support at all and there's not going to be any political penalty. The only political penalty will be suffered is if we don't pass a bill and the Republicans know that. And that's why they're not interested in helping pass the bill."
Our recollection about the votes on Social Security and Medicare was a little rusty, and we wondered whether Dean was right that both bills passed with no Republican support.
To find out, we had to turn back the clock to 1935 — the height of the Great Depression — when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, an insurance program funded through taxpayer dollars meant to support retirees. The legislation was controversial for a number of reasons, including its perceived effects on the labor market and whether its benefits favored working white men.
Nevertheless, on Aug. 8, 1935, the conference report — the final version of the bill that melds together changes made in the House and in the Senate — passed in the House 372-33, with 81 Republicans voting in support. The next day, the bill was passed in the Senate 77-6, with 16 Republicans supporting the legislation. So Social Security did pass with Republican support.
Thirty years later, a significant number of Republicans voted in favor of the Medicare bill. The House adopted the conference report on July 27, 1965, 307-116, with 70 Republicans supporting it. And on July 28, the Senate adopted the final version of the bill by a vote of 70-24, with 13 Republicans in favor of the bill. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare bill into law on July 30, 1965.
But is Dean correct that the Republicans didn't support Medicare until the end?
Donald Ritchie, the associate historian in the U.S. Senate, told us that the Republican support wasn't just a last-minute phenomenon. During the discussion of both bills, "There were always progressive Republicans and liberal Republicans, some of whom supported Roosevelt and Johnson," Ritchie said.
Johnson had the political muscle to pass Medicare because the 1964 elections ushered in 42 new Democrats to the House of Representatives, giving the party a two-thirds majority overall and a larger majority on the Ways and Means Committee, where the legislation would originate. Up until then, many members of the committee, including its Democratic chairman, Wilbur D. Mills, opposed the idea of government-funded health care. In fact, Mills proved a tough sell in 1965 until some of his own pet proposals were added to the legislation. One of those — the addition of a voluntary, supplemental health care plan — had its roots in a Republican alternative bill.
In the House, no Republicans voted for the bill until it reached the floor. It passed the Ways and Means Committee by a party-line vote of 17-8, although the panel's GOP members endorsed some of the bill's non-health care related provisions, according to the 1965 Congressional Quarterly Almanac .
Likewise, all four Republicans on the House Rules Committee — the panel that sets the boundaries of debate on all bills that come to the House floor — voted against the bill.
In the Senate, however, there was Republican support in the Finance Committee. When the panel cast its final vote, the bill passed 12-5, with four of the committee's eight Republicans supporting it. (President Barack Obama would probably love to get even that much GOP backing.)
So we find Dean is glossing over the details and exaggerating the partisan split. Both Social Security and Medicare were indeed championed by Democrats, but passed with the help of Republican votes. And while some GOP members waited until the last minute to support Medicare, it was backed by half the Republicans on the Senate committee. So we find Dean's statement False.
Rachel Maddow Show, transcript from the Aug. 25, 2009, episode , accessed Aug. 27, 2009
The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America , by By Philip A. Klinkner, Rogers M. Smith, 1999.
Social Security Administration, final vote tally for the Social Security Act of 1935 , accessed Aug. 27, 2009
Social Security Administration, final vote tally for Medicare , accessed Aug. 27, 2009
Congressional Quarterly 1965 Almanac
Interview with Don Ritchie, associate historian for the U.S. Senate, Aug. 28, 2009
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